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January 8, 1982

The new wave in medicine: nuclear magnetic resonance

JAMA. 1982;247(2):151-159. doi:10.1001/jama.1982.03320270003001

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Though exploration of its clinical potential is virtually just beginning, "NMR" already has a familiar ring to many physicians.

The acronym stands for nuclear magnetic resonance, one of the newest radiological forays into medical diagnosis. Focusing on the nuclei in the atoms of a single element (such as hydrogen) in biological tissue at a time, NMR can discern whether those nuclei behave normally in response to certain external forces, such as magnetism. Abnormal behavior—in comparison with normal behavior patterns still to be definitely established—may indicate a medical problem, such as ischemia or cancer.

The technique, which is nonionizing and noninvasive, has been used by organic chemists, biochemists, and some physicists since shortly after World War II to identify and analyze intricate molecules of homogenous liquids or solids. Lately, though, it is being increasingly applied to medicine, generating a tremendous surge of interest.

So how does it work, and why the